Tuesday, December 09, 2014

The Schprock Rest Cure (Results May Vary)

A while ago I read Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, a novel set in a Swiss alpine sanatorium not long before the Great War began. The book has its share of symbolism, and the sanatorium is meant to be a microcosm of the world, and there are dense passages about the nature of time and motion and politics and religion and the human "organism" that are very deep. However, I would like for moment to skip all that literary stuff to simply comment on sanatorium life and how I wish I could be a patient in one.

First off, there are no sanatoriums like the one in the book anymore, and the described "rest cures" have long been proven ineffective, whether for tuberculosis or for anything else (some rest cures for the mentally ill weren't even restful). In the book, each patient has his own room with a balcony, and each balcony has a special lounge chair. Several times a day, in between five enormous meals and scheduled periods of light walking exercise, the patients must rest in these lounge chairs during all weathers. Something about the pure air and the higher elevation combined with rest was supposed to have a curative effect. In cold weather, the patients use special blankets and fur-lined sleeping bags. In extreme cases, people are confined to their beds for weeks at a time. The director of the sanatorium, a character named Dr. Behrens, is a big, hearty, hail-fellow-well-met type who tells the patients what to do with an authority that none question.

Of course, before reading this book I had already been aware of sanatoriums. I've read a couple of Somerset Maugham stories that take place in a sanatorium (Maugham actually had TB and spent time in one). In the movie Alfie, the Michael Caine character found himself in a sanatorium for a time. I believe Moe of The Three Stooges had a nervous breakdown and was sent away to a sanatorium (not the real life Moe, but the Moe in the stories). And there have been times of great stress and anguish in my life when I would have liked nothing better than to find myself wheeled out onto a daffodil-sprinkled lawn by a pretty Swiss nurse, a blanket spread over me, to simply sit and contemplate the lovely mountain scenery while sipping tea.

Of the sanatorium stories I've read, most of the patients are comfortable, ambulatory, and enjoy quite a social life. As their primary mission is to rest and get better, this leaves them plenty of time for card games, reading, intrigues, friendships, stimulating conversation, and so on. Their health is monitored and they are cared for. They are removed from the world and are, quite frankly, pampered. And, yes, although I am not proud to say it, that appeals to me.

As I mentioned, the kind of sanatorium I crave does not exist anymore, and even if one did exist, I wouldn't be able to afford to stay in it. They were expensive. But I do find the sanatorium life I read about attractive because of the promise of stress relief, the structured setting, the society of likeminded people, and the idea that taking it easy and following simple instructions like eating as much good food as you can, taking pleasant strolls and simply resting is somehow healthy and productive . . . as opposed to the notion that cloistering yourself like that might be interpreted as checking out of life or really just loafing around.

So I wondered, could ask my own inner Dr. Behrens to work up a daily rest cure, one that I could fit into my life, a systematic way of achieving a little serenity, to unplug a little? After all, I do have to work and pay bills and be responsible. I can't book a cruise or go on a retreat for the rest of my life. In fact, I have been on cruises and retreats and have found myself itchy after a few days to get back to the stress and responsibilities from which I fled.

Here is what I try to do every day:

1. Ride a bike for at least sixty minutes.

2. Take a hot shower.

3. Meditate for twenty minutes.

Nothing very elaborate or mysterious, but I wind up feeling as relaxed as an overcooked piece of linguine on a hot July day. Now, if I may jump to number three for a second, when I say "meditate," I am referring to a device I bought a few years back called Resperate, a product billed as a treatment for reducing blood pressure. For this you need to wear headphones and clip a sensor belt around your middle torso to monitor your breaths. It's basically breathing to music, music programmed to slow your respiration down as you follow it. Somehow breathing slower dilates your blood vessels, which in turn lowers your blood pressure. Not even the manufacturer completely understands why it works. Anyways, I call it "meditation made easy" because you're just following music, not focusing on a candle flame or a mantra or any of the other things that quickly defeat my tiny attention span. After some practice, I've found I can do three breaths per minute, which is really quite slow and something you necessarily have to concentrate on doing.

The cycling part isn't tough either because I commute to work by bike anyways. In the evenings, I expand my route home to 15 to 18 miles (I live only five miles from the office). It's important to note that I like cycling, it's not a chore, and I mostly find the route home pleasant despite the rush hour traffic. There are a few hills along the way to get my heart rate up and a few homicidal drivers to elevate my heart rate even higher. The point is, the aerobic activity works out a lot of the daily stress build-up and that, followed by a hot shower, primes me very nicely for meditation.

There are, of course, other things that I find restful which you can consider adjuncts to the rest cure, such as performing mindless chores while listening to an audiobook. Repetitive activities like yard work, dish washing, folding laundry and snow shoveling are especially conducive. Five-minute catnaps are also good. But really, for me, it all boils down to the three Bs: bike, bathe and breathe. And that, my friends, is how I will live to be 120.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Thanksgiving 1, Christmas 0

Let me ask this personal and rather leading question: isn't Thanksgiving the best holiday on the U.S. calendar? It's a matter of opinion, I know, but for a moment consider Thanksgiving as the number one holiday. Of course, ask that same question to any kid and he or she will immediately counter with Christmas or Hanukah, no doubt thinking of all the loot. A great-aunt of mine who had a passion for hats would have insisted on Easter. Many politicians would reflexively state the Fourth of July. Tree surgeons everywhere might say Arbor Day. Gyms and Jenny Craig would certainly cite New Year's Day.

But getting back to the U.S. calendar, the two biggies clearly are Thanksgiving and Christmas, with energetic nods toward Hanukah and Kwanzaa. I know that's true, because Thanksgiving and Christmas are the two holidays that profit airlines the most. People don't send Columbus Day cards and there are no songs entitled "I'll Be Home for Halloween." So as we move inexorably toward what retailers feel is the most wonderful time of the year, I think it's fair to compare the two.

In my opinion, Christmas is the most overrated, costly, and stressful of all the holidays. So much money, angst, and planning for one day out of 365 makes very little sense to me. Consider this: wasn't Christmas meant to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ? Is not “christ” the root word of Christmas? If your answer is yes, then let me ask this: are flying reindeer and happy, industrious elves part of the iconography of the Christian Church? I only inquire because I’ve never seen them on a stained glass window. And although it’s been a while since Sunday School, I don’t remember Santa Claus in the manger with the baby Jesus, unless he was traveling incognito as a wise man.

It's not news to say that Christmas has become way, way over-commercialized. To my jaundiced eye, it’s a monstrosity, a burlesque of what it once was. It’s about shopping at the last minute for stuff you can’t afford to give to people who will look at it once, shake it twice, put down and forget. It’s traffic jams and fighting over parking spaces in mall parking lots. It’s writing the same hackneyed phrase on a million Christmas cards to people you hardly ever talk to. It’s a careful gift wrapping job ripped to shreds and the thoughtful note accompanying the package cast aside unread. It’s four page statements with your Visa and MasterCard bills and credit card debt stretching from the south to the north pole.

Okay, I got a little carried away. Let's just say I'm not a fan of Christmas.

Now let's take Thanksgiving. The fourth Thursday of November is the bugle call for family, friends, and loved ones to stop what they're doing, take a breath, and gather together around a table to share a meal. Simple as that. With all the distractions that pull us apart, what could be better than a bountiful meal to promote some real face-time among the people who matter most? They're all there in person! In the same room! You can't Skype a turkey or text cranberry sauce. If someone says something funny, people can actually hear other people Laugh Out Loud. And then there's the message behind the holiday, giving thanks, pausing to consider one's blessings, acknowledging that, while life is by definition imperfect and filled with setbacks and disappointments, there still are plenty of things that go right, and one of the reasons for why things go right is because we're all in it together.

So this Thanksgiving as I lay back in my recliner after a big meal, belt unloosened, top trouser button unbuttoned, watching NFL football through sleepy, contented eyes, I will count my blessings and try not to think of the shopping season ahead. I will keep score. And right now I predict Thanksgiving will have the early lead over Christmas.

Thursday, October 23, 2014


(Lord Loser shamed me into writing a post. So this is his fault.)

Ah, yes, Halloween is fast approaching. We all have our special Halloween memories from childhood, those beloved scenes of urchins strolling about in flame-retardant costumes wearing masks whose eyeholes never quite lined up with the eyes, of the houses we all counted on to offer the lamest of treats, and, of course, those other houses with no lights on at all meant to look unoccupied, but we knew the owners were home, oh yes, we knew . . . we could picture them sitting there in the dark, tensely waiting for the loud knocks, the rapidly pressed doorbell and the splatter of eggs to end.

Cherished memories all to be sure. But lost in the nostalgic haze and crass commercialism that has come to mark Halloween is the true meaning of the holiday.

The roots of Halloween date back to when the Santa Maria and the Mayflower collided one foggy night back on October 31, 1776, off the coast of Chelsea, Massachusetts. No one knows for sure whose fault it was. Columbus and Miles Standish both swore it was the one and not the other who failed to shout the customary warning of "Halloo!" required of sailors when plying an uncertain shoreline. Squanto, who was nearby, claimed he heard nothing but the rending of wood on wood that night, and historians generally agree that neither party alerted the other to its presence. However, when Miles Standish insisted to Columbus that it was he, Standish, who remembered to shout "Halloo!" Columbus derisively fired back, "Halloo when?" in his thick Italian accent.

When Samuel Adams and Paul Revere heard the story from Squanto, with Squanto imitating Columbus' theatrics by shouting with frantic arm waves "Halloo-weenah?" as the punchline, it quickly became a favorite joke in all the taverns of Boston. If any two Bostonians got involved in a mishap, the tension was instantly defused when one victim would lift his hands up to the heavens and tragicomically ask, "Halloo-weenah?" There is even a passage in Betsy Ross's diary indicating that "Halloo-weenah?" was George Washington's favorite catchphrase.

"Halloo-weenah" took on added life during the infamous Boston Tea Party. As we know, before boarding the ship to protest the way the British spelled their words, the colonists disguised themselves. Samuel Adams went as Spider-Man and Benjamin Franklin dressed as the Incredible Hulk. As the colonists pitched each barrel of tea into Boston Harbor, they shouted "Halloo-weenah!" to "great cheering and immoderate merriment" according to the notorious pamphleteer, Thomas Paine. He later went on to write: "These are the times that try men's souls. Halloo-weenah!"

And so, from that year to this, in commemoration of the fated collision of the Santa Maria and the Mayflower, we celebrate what has now come to be known as "Halloween." No one knows where pumpkins and graveyard stuff came from.

Friday, September 20, 2013

A Public Challenge to All Actors and Storytellers

Back when I used to maintain this blog, I liked to write short stories that only took ten minutes to read, the absolute limit one can ask of a blog reader. In general, they were pretty light and required practically no research. I enjoyed writing them because I think composing fiction is the nearest one can come to entering a world of fantasy, body and soul, without taking drugs, although I suppose you might get something like that with video games. The only video game I ever tried was Pong back in 1977, so I can't be sure. I know they both have to do with intense focus and loss of sense of time and space and not eating and putting off going to the bathroom. 

Anyway, I stopped writing these stories a long time ago because I got too busy. I had to start working weekends to pay the bills. But every now and again I like to go back and read these stories and, with the benefit of distance and experience, can now understand how they are all flawed and not the masterpieces I first took them to be.

If I do have a favorite it's the one about the Tuttles. I think this story is about the best I can write and I hope someday to have it performed for recording by an actor. If anyone wants to take a crack at it, let me know.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Several Random Thoughts Signifying Nothing

The Von Schprock College of Selective Knowledge

If I ever found an institution of higher learning:

The English Department will offer a course entitled "Rock 'n' Roll Grammar" which attempts to establish grammatical rules for popular music lyrics from the early 1950s to the present. A week will be spent on the Hip Hop genre alone. Expect a class devoted entirely to unraveling the group America's famous line from A Horse With No Name, "'Cause there ain't no one for to give you no pain."

The History Department will offer a course entitled "The Tarantino Timeline" which examines the events leading up to the conclusion of World War II and the conditions prevalent in the pre-civil war South. 

Course suggestions are welcome.


Mystery Photo ID'ed

I've noticed the above photograph floating around the internet. Obviously it's Robert DeNiro and Brenda Vacarro pictured with their love child, circa 1972. To the right is General Zod.

CORRECTION: Oops. My bad. It's a picture of the Marathon Bombers' parents with Baby Suspect Number One. 

To the right is General Zod.


This Must Stop!

Reminders of how old I am must stop. I'm reading Robert Caro's The Passage of Power from his biographical series, The Years of Lyndon Johnson. Okay, when I was a kid, Johnson was the president, right? This old dude who was always on the news, got me? Well guess what. When that old man assumed the presidency after JFK was assassinated, he was two years younger than I am now!


Not Their Finest Hour

I just finished Churchill's Memoirs of World War II, which is an abridgment of a much larger work. The reader quickly finds Sir Winston a very easy man to like, his writing is outstanding and often quite witty, and it's fascinating to get a view of WWII from one of its main actors. He sets the stage by beginning his story at the conclusion of World War I (some historians consider both wars one very big one with an uneasy break in the middle) and guides the reader through the politics and prosecution of the war with all the logistical headaches that go with it. You may be surprised that he is very gracious and fair to Neville Chamberlain, and in general he tries quite hard to see contrary points of view even when completely sure that his way would have been best. 

But, boy, did Stalin play the Western powers. Played us all for chumps. We had to deal with him, we had to help Russia, but in the end he took us for all we were worth. Churchill could never get the upper hand. As evil as he was, sometimes you've got to give the devil his due.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Marathon Bombing

It was a beautiful day and I decided to do a little painting on the old homestead. The "weather side" of our house had taken an awful beating over the past few years. So I'm up there on a plank with my scraper and my caulking gun and my pot of paint. The Red Sox game had just ended and now I'm listening to the afternoon sports talk guys. The Patriots have a wide receiver problem. The Bruins still don't have a power play. All of a sudden sirens start wailing and fire engine horns blare. It feels like they're all around me. I jokingly think to myself, well, this is the point in the marathon when the heart attack cases (those people not really in shape to run 26.2 miles) start to drop. Those poor bastards with pork chop-clogged aortas clutching their chests all at once. Then the sports talk guys mention an explosion.

It's funny how a solitary man on plank engaged in such a solitary pursuit can be so plugged in to what was going on. All it took was a radio and proximity to an event.

I went for a bike ride early that morning. There's this route I like that takes me through Brighton, Brookline, Newton and Boston. Small parts of it were sections of the Boston marathon route which I did my best to avoid. Eventually I wound up at my office located at the beginning of Newbury Street, five blocks from the marathon finish line. There I cleaned up and went out to breakfast. Later I ran an errand that took me to the Fenway area. As on every Patriots Day, the Red Sox scheduled an 11:00 home game that morning. I sat for a while and watched the Red Sox fans stream to the park, excited families and lots of boyfriends with their girlfriends clad in Red Sox gear. I almost enquired if there were any standing room tickets left.

If the day wasn't so nice, I would have gone back to the office to catch up on some some work. But it was beautiful, so there I was later that afternoon, up on a plank listening to the radio and the sirens.

The next day, Tuesday, I was able to go to work because my office was exactly one block outside the zone the authorities designated as a crime scene. It was another beautiful day. I felt a little timid running out for a snack  that afternoon. The Public Garden was ringed with TV trucks, all of them massive and white with enormous satellite dishes perched on their tops. Reporters roamed with microphones while cameramen carrying tripods hustled to keep up. The atmosphere felt subdued. Nearby was the barrier closing off one end of Boylston Street keeping back a small crowd gazing toward the finish line area. I saw a marathon runner wearing an official blue and yellow jacket being interviewed. Later there were rumors that a suspect had been caught and was being rushed to the Moakley Courthouse in the North End. Everyone was elated by the news. A 5:00 press conference was scheduled. Then somebody called in a bomb threat and the courthouse was evacuated. Then there was no press conference and, as it turned out, no suspect.

Everybody knows what happened. The two Tsarnaev brothers got caught, one killed and the other badly injured, but not before they seriously screwed up a lot lives and disrupted many, many more. That Friday when multiple law enforcement agencies hunted young Dzhokhar in neighboring Watertown, my wife and I "sheltered in place" with our eyes glued to the TV news. Never in my life have I experienced anything like it. That is actually one of the the many good things about this country. Events like this are not commonplace as they are in other places on the earth. 

Sometimes when you're working up on a plank, so many feet above the ground, it can be kind of peaceful and removed. Detached. But you can't stay that way.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Jackie Bradley Junior!

The Red Sox have a hot new player who everyone thinks should start the season with the big club and win Rookie of the Year and the American League MVP. His name is Jackie Bradley Junior and that's how his name is always said. Never "Bradley" or "Jackie" or "Jackie Bradley." Always "Jackie Bradley Junior." Usually when you get the constant "Junior" there's a notable "Senior," such as Ken Griffey Senior. The only thing I know about Jackie Bradley, Sr. is that he contributed the critical genetic material that went into the creation of the hardball phenom known as Jackie Bradley, Jr.

To me, Jackie Bradley, Jr. isn't a baseball name. It's more of an Ed Sullivan Show name. (Readers under 45, please Google and report back. And keep Google on standby.) I imagine sequined suits, big band music with lots of brass, sold-out Las Vegas shows, and "Ladies and gentlemen, Caesar's Palace is proud to present, Mr. Entertainment himself, Jackie . . . Bradley . . . Junior!" Jackie Bradley, Jr. should have a Christmas album. There should be pictures of Jackie Bradley, Jr. hamming it up with the Beatles, Jackie Bradley, Jr. on a yacht with Jackie O, Jackie Bradley, Jr. playing golf with Bob Hope, Jackie Bradley, Jr. at Elvis' funeral, Jackie Bradley, Jr. singing "We Are the World,"  Jackie Bradley, Jr. in Africa with Elizabeth Taylor, Jackie Bradley, Jr. playing golf with Bill Clinton, Jackie Bradley, Jr. in conference with Bishop Tutu, Jackie Bradley, Jr. in conference with Pope John Paul II, Jackie Bradley, Jr. headlining the Super Bowl halftime show, Jackie Bradley, Jr. playing golf with George W., Jackie Bradley, Jr. and Barry Obama going one-on-one in a friendly game of basketball.

But he is, as I say, a baseball player.